What will the internet look like in the year 2071? Geoff Huston, chief scientist the regional internet registry the Asia Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC), thinks there may not be an internet – or at least not as we know it today.
Huston's thinking is outlined in a presentation he made to a recent IBM Research event on the Future of Computer Communications Networks.
The talk opened by pondering what predictions one would have made in 1921 – a time when Huston reckoned forecasting huge growth in voice telephony would have been a logical conclusion, but faxes and digital technology would not. He then repeated the exercise with 1971 as his starting point, and concluded that predicting computers would become a consumer product would have been hard to do at a time when the dominant personal electronics product was a pocket calculator.
As is evident from the fact you're reading this article with a computer – and on a web site – things changed rather quickly post-1971. Huston traced what happened by recounting the shift of compute resources away the core of the network – first there were mainframes, then minicomputers, then early consumer internet access services that used client/server models.
We are amassing so much transmission, computation, and storage, that we are no longer motivated to use a common network to carry clients to distant service delivery points
"Capacity requirements of the network were determined by the actions of the consumer market, and the coupling of consumer demand and network service became a function of the internet market itself," Huston wrote. "This meant that by the 2000s there was a scramble to scale up the services provided within the server side of the network."
Which didn't really work.
"The huge consumer demand for those devices was not being matched by an equal level of investment in scaling the service infrastructure and capacity of the connecting network," Huston argued. "More consumer demand was not accompanied by more revenue which, in turn, meant that more infrastructure was funded by increasing the debt levels of the service and infrastructure provider."
That couldn't last, and it didn't. Huston rated the advent of Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) as enormously significant, because they meant centralised infrastructure took on a new role.
"Rather than bringing back all the clients to a single service delivery point (I recall Microsoft trying to service all online updates to Windows from their server farm located in Seattle, which was a challenge in both computing and communications terms), we turned to the model of replicating the service closer to the service's clients."
Consumer demand was therefore "expressed only within the access networks, while the network's interior was used to feed updates to edge service centres. In effect, the internet had discovered edge-based distribution mechanisms that brought the service closer to the user, rather than the previous communications model that brought the user to the service."
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Which brings us to 2021 – a moment in time from which, Huston predicted, the move to put more services on the network edge will continue.
"The way in which we build service platforms to meet ever-larger load and ever-declining cost parameters isn't done just by building bigger networks, but by changing the way in which clients access these services," he observed. "We've largely stopped pushing content and transactions all the way across a network and instead we serve from the edge.
"We are amassing so much transmission, computation, and storage, that we are no longer motivated to use a common network to carry clients to distant service delivery points," he added.
And that trend may mean that the internet as we know it becomes irrelevant as a concept.
"We used to claim that the internet was a common network, a common protocol, and a common address pool. Any connected device could send an IP packet to any other connected device … This common address pool essentially defined what was the internet.
"These days that's just not the case and as we continue to fracture the network, fracture the protocol framework, fracture the address space, and even fracture the name space …" we still need to identify services and service delivery points uniquely. But is that necessarily a network function or should this be an attribute of the service application itself?
Using that logic, he posited that the internet might remain as a concept – but a very loose one
"Perhaps all that will be left of the internet as a unifying concept is a somewhat shapeless disparate collection of services that share common referential mechanisms."
Huston didn't offer an opinion regarding whether that would be a good thing or not. Instead he concluded his talk with an expression of hope: "We've successfully challenged what we understood about the capabilities of this technology time and time again, and along the way delivered some amazing technical accomplishments," he wrote, rounding out with " I would like to see us do no less than that over the coming 50 years!" ®